Why churches, pastors may be reluctant to dive into divorce counseling
The spiritual ramifications of marital endings are under-addressed.
Before, during, and defiantly clinging into the aftermath of divorce, the “why me?” question is one that only God can answer. Think of Job. As The Message introduces this book of the Bible, Job “asked his questions persistently, passionately, and eloquently . He refused to take clichÃ©s for an answer. He refused to let God off the hook.”
What had Job done to deserve the turn of fate that found him in such pain?
If this is indeed the purview of faith, why then would any church or its pastor demur from acting as our Lord’s emissary in counseling couples throughout the divorce spectrum?
As an event, divorce falls somewhere between a marriage and a funeral. Pastors are commonly well-trained, with coaching in the latter two. Each is a form of passage, familiar as callings (if not comfortable), encouraged by our society. Something “legitimate” is brought to pass through gatherings associated with both.
Divorce seems connected to both, too. If we called it an “un-marriage,” that would seem in the ballpark; but it’s hardly a simple matter of reversing one’s steps as it were, walking backward up a white silk runner. Divorce may be called “the death of a marriage,” funerals come with less perceived onlooker disapproval; they certainly provide more closure. Five years ago, when in a Blog where I referenced the death of Elisabeth KÃ¼bler-Ross, I remarked about how the passage of time was casting doubt on her “five stages of dying” as applied to death — let alone divorce.
To paraphrase Eliphaz, speaking to his friend’s increasing miseries in Job 22:4-5, one can’t be completely innocent and experience great suffering. “No, it’s because of your wickedness!”
Are you right with God on your divorce? How do you know? Those are pastoral care questions.
In one of the theology courses I took at Concordia College (before our friends off Geddes Road became a university), my professor often reflected with angst on the story of how he’d been kicked out of a hospital emergency room where he was serving as a young, newly-ordained minister. He was in the way, the doctors argued, and they had a job to do. A life was a stake.
“I had a job to do, too!” he’d explain to his students, then-two-decades later. “That patient’s eternal salvation was a stake.”
With all the disparate interests having their hands in divorce these days, it’s not hard to see how advocacy of one’s relationship with our savior Jesus Christ might be marginalized. Legal papers need to be signed. Moving trucks coordinated.
Hosea 5:15 cites our inclination to seek out God “as soon as trouble comes.” But it’s messy. “[If] the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?” asks Gideon, in Judges 6:13. The answer “must” be that “the Lord has abandoned us .”
Why would any pastor hesitate to correct that misperception?
In my discussions and consultations with them, four themes emerge.
The first of these relates to the threshold prerequisite to divorce: In order to get divorced, a couple must first have been married. Now, irrespective of how any particular husband and wife effectuated their nuptials, you and I both know that the first image coming to mind is that of the church ceremony. Marriages are thought to begin with pastors presiding, in churches. These ministers are God’s representatives, acting on His behalf. At the point of divorce, does this bring into question the diligence with which they discharged there marital preparation duties?
Even if the couple coming before them in divorce is not one where they, themselves, officiated the marriage, there can be a kind of category guilt in operation here.
Now let’s say that the pastor’s door is open to couples experiencing stress, ready to throw in the towel on their relationship. The implied, even if not overtly stated or forcefully advocated bias, is toward reconciliation. Matthew 19:26 quotes Jesus as saying, “with God everything is possible.” James 5:15 promises that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well .” Do we as pastors “fail” if we cannot bring this about?
No. But, sometimes in our pastoral roles, in an effort to provide strength and pass along the faith we have in God, our perspective can slip. It is God who holds all wisdom and power; it is He alone who controls outcomes. Daniel 2:20-22. Yet from the perspective of the pastor within a church, concern can arise that failure to facilitate reconciliation portends some shortcoming on his or her part.
Your pastor isn’t an emissary of miracles on demand.
Ironically, the third pastoral struggle regarding divorce is exactly the opposite of this. What if this counseling results in reconciliation?
Interactions that follow become awkward. If it’s an individual who sought advice in contemplation of divorce, but has since reconsidered, there’s the uneasiness of having someone else know an embarrassing truth otherwise tempting to deny. For couples, a perceived spotlight on the white picket fence they might otherwise like to believe is all their community sees. The congregational pastor is seen week-in, week-out; even the seconds-long interactions after worship services where an oblique “how’s it going?” question is asked can be taken as a challenge to report something more, in detail — again.
It’s human nature to avoid those who’ve seen us at our worst after we feel we’re now on to better.
The Christian tenants of forgiveness and new life alluded to in Revelation 7:14 are oftentimes hard to internalize. Counseling at this proximity, even when it yields reconciliation, can result in having those couples sever previously strong connections to their church.
Finally, however the effort turns out, embarking on a pastoral counseling relationship with one or both spouses likely means a long-term commitment. It drains time resources that will easily include sit-down meetings that continue for at least a year. Once started, the trust nature of these interactions can defy attempts to delegate them elsewhere without compromising progress, if not outcome. Divorce is also, as noted above, its own specialty area. Not merely “marriage, plus a little bit of this,” nor “death, with a little less of that.”
Larger churches and, collectively, denominations, can offer orientations, it not ongoing training. Catholic Divorce Ministry offers one of the best programs I’ve seen on a national level. It’s open to Christians of all faiths. Formerly known as The North American Conference of Separate and Divorced Catholics, I taught my first module on divorce care for them in 2004; yes, I’m a member.
Churches and their pastors who are invested in divorce counseling are to be admired. This is no easy task. Some have responded to the need for this ministry by networking with expert resources, which can be equal or preferable — so long as the church recognizes its obligation to truly know and establish accountability with its partners or pooled-resource initiatives.
Ostensibly, there are reasons for having lesser involvement in committed, long-term divorce counseling. But how will we answer God when called to account for leaving the need unanswered, the trajectories of marital ends to be played out without our counsel? It’s common to hear the husband or wife who’s alienated from his or her chosen mate will ask, “why me?”
How will we help them find their answer, in Jesus Christ?